Many Irish fans immediately had convulsions upon hearing that Notre Dame would be facing the power rushing attack of LSU in the Music City Bowl. Given the injuries along the defensive front, and relative inexperience of the linebacking corps, it seems to be a matchup ripe for exploitation by the Tigers. How can Notre Dame hope to stop Leonard Fournette & Co.? We are going to take a look at the four base running plays used by LSU, that the Irish defense will see over and over again come December 30th. Everything the Tiger offense does is based off of these 4 plays, and Notre Dame's success will depend on how well it can defend against the core of LSU's playbook.
The iso play is the staple of any I-Formation team, and really is the fundamental running play in the game of football in general. LSU uses this play very often, in every area of the field. In many cases, they will run iso 3 or 4 times in a row. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Here we see an iso run to the weak side of the formation. LSU is primarily a 21 personnel team (2 RB, 1TE), and really doesn't do much with formation/motion to try and throw things off pre-snap. The iso run is called an iso because the fullback is "isolated" against the middle linebacker. The QB will declare the Mike linebacker before the snap, telling the OL who to leave for the fullback. After the snap, it is up to the fullback to find the correct hole to run through in order to get up to the linebacker, and the tailback simply follows until he makes his block. The O-Line double-teams up to the SAM and WILL linebackers, leaving the ends in one-on-one blocks.
The sweep play is the primary "outside" complement to the "inside" iso play. Again, this is one of the classic plays in football, with big time proponents like Vince Lombardi drawing it up for years.
LSU will often run their sweep out of an unbalanced formation, where the tackle on the backside of the play is uncovered, and the TE on the playside is actually covered by the X receiver. This allows LSU to gain some extra leverage on the playside should the defense not line up correctly to the odd formation. The two important blocks of the sweep are completed by the playside pulling guard and the fullback. The playside guard's job is to kick out the SAM linebacker, opening a hole for the FB and RB. The fullback's job is to cut inside of that block and find the first man to the hole (usually the MIKE linebacker) and pin him inside, allowing the RB to squeeze between the two blocks into the secondary. This play gives the OL mostly easy downblocks, washing the line out of the play . The difficult block here is the Center getting up to the second level to cut off the WILL linebacker's pursuit.
The wham play is a very good way for offenses to allow their O-lines to get to the second level by leaving an end unblocked intentionally to be picked up by another player. Another way to accomplish the same idea is by running a read option on an unblocked defender. LSU typically runs the wham play from shotgun, but will also run the same concept from the pistol formation with a FB in the backfield alongside the QB.
The key to the wham play is the H-Back coming across the back of the O-line to kick out the backside end. This allows for two double team blocks instead of only one, resulting in a simpler block on both linebackers.
This is one of the plays that is unique to LSU. It takes a standard concept, the power play, and adds a little wrinkle to help it be more efficient.
Just like a normal power play, the backside guard pulls to lead the RB through the hole (usually outside of the end in LSU's scheme). The fullback is then responsible for the kickout block on the SAM linebacker as he will get there before the guard does. The guard pulls up through the hole looking for the first man to lay out, setting the RB free into the secondary. The interesting wrinkle which LSU adds to this play is using a quick pitch to get the ball in the hands of the RB almost immediately, and then using the QB to shut off any backside pursuit that may have leaked through due to the pulling guard. This gives a bit of a cushion to the backside of the O-line to not make super perfect blocks, and still work towards getting to the second level. The below is a very well blocked example, and would have been a great play save for the fumble by the RB fighting for a first down.
So, how can the Irish stop the power running attack? Stopping the power running game is simply about getting the right amount of numbers to the point of attack as quickly as possible. This is accomplished with a combination of efforts from the defense:
- Penetration/Disruption across the defensive line
If the Irish are able to get a DL into the backfield to hinder the FB or RB from reaching the correct hole, it gives the entire defense some time to work off of blocks and hopefully make the tackle. This is only if the DL is able to generate disruption with some regularity, otherwise this plan may leave the linebackers vulnerable. If no disruption is possible, step one usually gets thrown out in favor of playing more conservative along the DL (step 2).
- Interior Defensive Linemen keeping the Linebackers clean
If the interior DL is unable to generate any disruption, it is usually better for them to focus on collapsing double teams and not letting any O-Linemen reach the second level of the defense. This could be as simple as feeling a double team, grabbing some jersey, and falling down with two people on top of you, as long as those OL don't get to the backers.
- Linebackers, especially the Mike backer, meeting the FB in the hole at the line of scrimmage
This is one of the most important steps to stopping the power running game. The closer to the line of scrimmage that the linebacker meets the fullback, the faster the RB needs to make his break, and if there are a lot of bodies around, there's less room for him to work. It will be up to the middle linebackers to react quickly with the sole purpose of trying to destroy the fullback as he leads for the running back.
- Safeties coming up in run support quickly and correctly
All power running games are based on bringing more people to the point of attack than the defense has to defend with. This is why if a play goes exactly as expected on the offensive side of the ball, it will result in the running back being one-on-one with a safety. The safeties must be quick to react to running plays, and work to make tackles close to the line of scrimmage. Missed tackles here spell big plays for the offense, so it is imperative that they wrap up well.
All of these things together will result in a solid performance against the power running game. If one of them is lacking, it could be a long day for the defense. For example, against Alabama in the national championship game, item #4 was sorely missed, as the Irish often had a one-on-one with Zeke Motta vs. Eddie Lacy, but the tackling wasn't there.
Hopefully the Irish are able to put it all together against the power running game of the Tigers. They will see the plays enough to know what to do, it will only be a matter of execution -- something that has been lacking over the tail end of the season.